Carson McCullers’s (February 19, 1917 – September 29, 1967) fiction has a childlike directness, a disconcerting exposure of unconscious impulses in conjunction with realistic detail. She is like the candid child who announces that the emperor in his new clothes is really naked. She sees the truth, or at least a partial truth of the human psyche, then inflates or distorts that truth into a somewhat grotesque fable that is sometimes funny but always sad.
Such a tragicomic effect derives, apparently, from an unusual openness to subconscious direction, combined with conscious cultivation of a style that best exploits such material, weaving into it just enough objectively observed reality to achieve plausibility. McCullers herself explained the technique by which she achieved the fusion of objective reality with symbolic, psychic experience. In “The Russian Realists and Southern Literature,” first published in Decision, July, 1941 (now available in The Mortgaged Heart), she speaks of the charge of cruelty that was brought against both Russian writers (particularly Fyodor Dostoevski) and southern writers such as William Faulkner and herself, though she does not refer to her own works.
No single instance of “cruelty” in Russian or Southern writing could not be matched or outdone by the Greeks, the Elizabethans, or, for that matter, the creators of the Old Testament. Therefore it is not the specific “cruelty” itself that is shocking, but the manner in which it is presented. And it is in this approach to life and suffering that the southerners are so indebted to the Russians. The technique briefly is this: a bold and outwardly callous juxtaposition of the tragic with the humorous, the immense with the trivial, the sacred with the bawdy, the whole soul of a man with a materialistic detail.
What is peculiar to the Russians and the southerners is not the inclusion of farce and tragedy in the same work, but the fusion of the two so that they are experienced simultaneously. McCullers uses Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930) as an example of this technique. She could as effectively have demonstrated it with her own Ballad of the Sad Café, which is a masterpiece of tragicomedy. The relative lack of success of the earlier Reflections in a Golden Eye results partly, perhaps, from her inability to balance the sadomasochistic elements with elements of satire or farce. She reportedly claimed that incidents such as the rejected wife cutting off her nipples with garden shears were “hilariously funny.” This may demonstrate an oddly warped sense of humor, a failure of craft, or simply ignorance about her own creative processes, or it may simply be a way of shunting off rational explanations of a work of art, a red herring to confuse critics. As a novelist, McCullers operates like a poet or perhaps like a Surrealist painter, who tells the truth but “tells it slant.”
The thematic content of McCullers’s works is consistent: All her stories deal with the metaphysical isolation of individuals and their desperate need to transcend this isolation through love. Love is the key to a magnificent transformation of leaden existence into gold, but the exalted state is doomed because love is so seldom reciprocated. Though this feeling (and it is more feeling than thought) may stem from McCullers’s early fears and dependence on her mother, it strikes a universal chord. The fact that McCullers projects this terrible sense of unrequited love into all kinds of human relationships except that between mother and daughter may be suggestive in itself. In an interview with Virginia Spencer Carr, Lamar Smith, Jr., said that his sister did not depict a meaningful mother-daughter relationship in her fiction because she did not want to strip herself bare and show the utter dependency that she felt for her mother.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
Nevertheless, McCullers successfully universalizes the state of metaphysical isolation as a perennial human condition, not merely a neurotic regression to childhood. Her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, has Mick Kelly as its child character, who clings to John Singer, the deaf-mute, who, she fancies, understands and sympathizes with her problems. McCullers’s own definition of the character in “Author’s Outline of ‘The Mute’” (The Mortgaged Heart) reveals an almost transparent self-dramatization: “Her story is that of the violent struggle of a gifted child to get what she needs from an unyielding environment.” Only metaphorically is Mick’s struggle “violent,” but even when McCullers presents physical violence in fiction it often seems to function as the objective correlative to mental anguish.
McCullers casts Jake Blount, the ineffectual social agitator, as a would-be Marxist revolutionary, but he may seem more like an overgrown frustrated child. Her outline says, “His deepest motive is to do all that he can to change the predatory, unnatural social conditions existing today. . . . He is fettered by abstractions and conflicting ideas. . . . His attitude vacillates between hate and the most unselfish love.”
Dr. Benedict Copeland is the more believable character, representing the peculiar plight of the educated African American in the South, who has internalized white society’s condemnation of black cultural traits. His daughter’s black dialect and careless posture embarrass him, and he frowns on what he considers the irresponsible fecundity and emotionality of the black youth. What McCullers calls his “passionate asceticism” has driven away even his own family.
Biff Brannon, the proprietor of the local restaurant, is the dispassionate observer of people, sympathetic, in a distant way, with all human oddities. Like Mick, he seems almost a part of McCullers, a grown-up version of the child who sat silently in the corners of stores watching people, who loved to listen to the voices of African Americans, and who paid her dimes repeatedly to see the freaks in the side shows. Brannon is also sexually impotent, with homosexual leanings. He is cold and withdrawn withhis wife and has a repressed attraction for Mick in her tomboyish prepuberty—an impulse that fades as soon as she shows sexual development.
All of these characters pivot around the deaf-mute, John Singer, who is the central symbol of humankind’s metaphysical isolation. They take his silence as wisdom and pour out their hearts to his patient but unreceptive ears. He does lip-read, so he knows what they are saying, but he has no way to communicate with them in reply. Moreover, the experiences they confide to him seem so alien to his own that he does not really understand. Mick talks about music, which he has never heard; Jake Blount rants about the downtrodden working classes; Dr. Copeland speaks of his frustrations as a racial leader without any followers; and Biff Brannon simply looks on with no project of his own.
John Singer shares their universal need to love and communicate with a kindred soul. The object of his adoration is another mute, a sloppy, mentally disabled Greek named Antonopoulus, who loves nothing but the childish pleasure of a full stomach. When the Greek dies in an institution, Singer commits suicide. The whole pyramid of illusion collapses.
This bleak tale suggests that the beloved is created in the lover’s mind out of the extremity of his need and projected upon whomever is available. Singer drew the love of these desperate souls on account of his polite tolerance of their advances coupled with an essential blankness. They looked into his eyes and saw their own dreams reflected there, just as Singer himself read a secret sympathy and understanding in the blank round face of Antonopoulus, who was actually incapable of such sentiments.
The haunting quality of this story may derive partly from the impression of getting an inside look at a multiple personality. McCullers displays a curious ability to divide her ambivalent psyche to create new, somewhat lopsided beings. McCullers had never seen a deaf-mute, for example, and when Reeves wanted to take her to a convention of deaf-mutes, she declined, saying she already knew John Singer. Marxist political agitators may have been just as foreign to her actual experience, but she could create one from the jumble of liberal sentiment she acquired through educated friends and through reading. If the issues were not clear in her own mind, it did not really matter, because Jake was a confused and drunken loser. McCullers has been praised by black writers for her sensitive portrayal of African Americans, yet the peculiar warmth of the relationship between Dr. Copeland’s daughter Portia, her husband, and her brother suggests the triangular love affairs McCullers sometimes acted out in her own life and dramatized several times in other fiction.
Reflections in a Golden Eye
McCullers wrote Reflections in a Golden Eye in a short period of time, “for fun,” she said, after the long session with The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. The idea for the story germinated when, as an adolescent, she first went to Fort Benning, but she also drew on her experience of Fayetteville, where she and Reeves lived for a while, and nearby Fort Bragg. The story caused considerable shock in conservative southern communities. Americans generally were not prepared for a fictional treatment of homosexuality. A perceptive reader might suspect the latent homosexuality in Biff Brannon, but there is no doubt about Captain Penderton’s sexual preferences. Moreover, the sadomasochism, the weird voyeurism, and the Freudian implications of horses and guns are unmistakable. If The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is about love, Reflections in a Golden Eye is about sex and its various distortions. These characters are lonely, isolated people, driven by subconscious impulses. The story concerns two army couples, a houseboy, a rather primitive young man, all of them somewhat abnormal, and a horse. One suspects the horse is akin to a dream symbol for the ungovernable libido.
Captain Penderton is impotent with his beautiful wife, Leonora, but is drawn to her lover, Major Langdon. The major’s wife is sickly and painfully aware of her husband’s affair with Leonora. Mrs. Langdon is solicitously attended by a Filipino houseboy, who is also maladjusted. The other character is Private Williams, an inarticulate young man who seems to be a fugitive from somebody’s unconscious (probably Captain Penderton’s). He has a mystical affinity for nature, and he is the only person who can handle Leonora’s high-spirited stallion, Firebird. Captain Penderton is afraid of the horse, and he both loves and hates Private Williams. D. H. Lawrence’s The Prussian Officer (1914) may have provided a model for Penderton’s relationship to Private Williams, since McCullers was an admirer of Lawrence. Private Williams is quite different, however, from the perfectly normal, healthy orderly who is the innocent victim of the Prussian officer’s obsession. The silent Private Williams enacts a psychodrama that repeats, in different terms, the sexual impotence of Penderton. Having seen Leonora naked through an open door, he creeps into the Penderton house each night to crouch silently by her bedside, watching her sleep. When Penderton discovers him there, he shoots him. The scene in the dark bedroom beside the sleeping woman is loaded with psychological overtones. Not a word is spoken by either man. In one sense, the phallic gun expresses the captain’s love-hate attraction to the private; in another sense, Penderton is killing his impotent shadow-self.
Technically speaking, Reflections in a Golden Eye is superior to McCullers’s first novel; at least, it has an admirable artistic unity. Its four-part structure has the precision of a tightly constructed musical composition. In content, the story line seems as gothic as Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), yet the style is objective and nonjudgmental—like the impersonal eye of nature in which it is reflected. McCullers was perfecting the kind of perception and style she spoke of in her essay on the Russian realists, presenting human action starkly without editorial comment.
The Ballad of the Sad Café
McCullers’s next work, The Ballad of the Sad Café, was a more successful treatment of archetypal myth, with its psychodramatic overtones tempered this time by humor. Like the true folk ballad, it is a melancholy tale of love. The setting is an isolated southern village—little more than a trading post with a few dreary, unpainted buildings. The most prominent citizen is known as Miss Amelia, a strong, mannish, cross-eyed woman with a sharp business sense. She runs the general store and operates a still that produces the best corn liquor for miles around. There is nothing to do for entertainment in town except drink her brew, follow the odd career of this sexless female, and listen to the melancholy singing of the chain gang, which suggests a universal entrapment in the dreary reality of one’s life.
The story concerns a temporary hiatus from boredom when Miss Amelia and the observing townspeople become a real community. Love provides the means for a temporary transcendence of Miss Amelia’s metaphysical isolation and, through her, sheds a reflected radiance on all. Like John Singer, Miss Amelia chooses an odd person to love, a homeless dwarf who straggles into town, claiming to be her cousin and hoping for a handout. Although Miss Amelia had thrown out her husband, the only man who had ever loved her, because he expected sexual favors when they were married, she unaccountably falls in love with this pathetic wanderer. She takes Cousin Lymon in and, because he likes company, begins a restaurant, which becomes the social center of the entire community. All goes well until the despised husband, Marvin Macy, is released from the penitentiary and returns to his hometown, bent on revenge for the monstrous humiliation Miss Amelia had visited upon him.
Another unusual threesome develops when Cousin Lymon becomes infatuated with Marvin Macy. The competition between Macy and Miss Amelia for the attention of Cousin Lymon comes to a tragicomic climax in a fistfight between the rivals. Miss Amelia, who has been working out with a punching bag, is actually winning when the treacherous Cousin Lymon leaps on her back, and the two men give her a terrible drubbing. Macy and Cousin Lymon flee after they vandalize Miss Amelia’s store and her still in the woods. Miss Amelia is left in a more desolate isolation than she has ever known and becomes a solitary recluse thereafter. The coda at the end recalls again the mournful song of the chain gang.
There is no more somber image of spiritual isolation than the glimpse of the reclusive Miss Amelia at the window of her boarded-up café: “It is a face like the terrible, dim faces known in dreams—sexless and white, with two gray crossed eyes that are turned inward so sharply that they seem to be exchanging with each other one long and secret gaze of grief.” This story, written in a style that precludes sentimentality, is surely McCullers’s most successful treatment of unrequited love and betrayal. The fight scene is a satire of all traditionally masculine brawls for the love of a woman, witnessed by the entire community as a battle larger than life, for a prize both morally and physically smaller than life. Besides the satire on all crude American substitutes for the duel of honor, this story may also call to mind Faulkner’s famous gothic tale “A Rose for Emily,” about the genteel aristocratic lady who murdered her lover to keep him in her bed. Miss Emelia is certainly the absolute opposite to all conventions about the beautiful but fragile southern lady, who is entirely useless.
The Member of the Wedding
The Member of the Wedding is possibly the most popular of McCullers’s novels, partly because it was converted into a successful Broadway play— in defiance of one critic’s judgment that the novel is entirely static, totally lacking in drama. In fact, the story has a quality somewhat akin to closet drama, such as George Bernard Shaw’s “Don Juan in Hell,” which is performed by readers with no attempt at action. The endless conversation occurs in one spot, the kitchen of a lower-middleclass home in the South. There are occasional forays into the outer world, but always the principals return to the kitchen, where real experience and visionary ideals blend in an endless consideration of human possibilities.
The protagonist, a motherless adolescent girl named Frankie Addams, is the central quester for human happiness, foredoomed to disappointment. She is similar to Mick in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. It is no accident that both their names reflect the genderless state of prepuberty; moreover, neither has been indoctrinated into the attitudes and conventional expectations of little girls. In the isolation and boredom of Frankie’s life, the only exciting event is the upcoming marriage of her older brother. Frankie conceives of the dream that will sustain her in the empty weeks of the long, hot summer: She will become a member of the wedding and join her brother and his bride on their honeymoon and new idyllic life of love and communion.
This impossible dream is the central issue of those long conversations in the kitchen where the girl is flanked by a younger cousin, John Henry, who represents the childhood from which Frankie is emerging, and the black maid, Berenice, who tries to reason with Frankie without stripping her of all solace. Ignorant as she is of the dynamics of sexual love, what Frankie aspires to is not a love so self-seeking as eros, nor quite so all-encompassing as agape. She envisions an ideal love that establishes a permanent and free-flowing communication among the members of a small, select group. This imagined communion seems to express an unvoiced dream of many, sometimes situated in a visionary future or an equally visionary past. Berenice, for all her gentle earthiness, shows that her vision of a golden age is in the past, when she was married to her first husband. She admits that after that man died, her other two marriages were vain attempts to recapture the rapport she had known with her first husband.
A curious irony of the story is that Frankie, with her persistent goal of escaping her isolated personal identity in what she calls the “we of me,” actually comes closest to that ideal in the course of these endless conversations with the child and the motherly black woman. This real communion also passes away, as surely as the imagined communion with the wedded pair never materializes. John Henry dies before the end of the story, symbolic perhaps of the passing of Frankie’s childhood. Reality and banality seem to have conquered in a world unsuited to the dreams of sensitive human beings.
Clock Without Hands
McCullers’s last novel, Clock Without Hands, written during a period of suffering and ill health, moves beyond the not quite adult problems of adolescence at the cost of much of her lyricism. Perhaps the novel is a somewhat feeble attempt to emulate the moral power of Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886). It concerns a very ordinary man who faces death from leukemia and suspects that he has never lived on his own terms. The theme is still loneliness and spiritual isolation, but it has taken on existential overtones. The protagonist, J. T. Malone, like Tolstoy’s Ivan, discovers too late that moral dignity requires some kind of commitment to action. In his new and painful awareness of his own moral vacuity, there are few decisions left to make. He does make one small gesture, however, to redeem an otherwise meaningless life. He refuses to accept the community’s order to bomb the home of an African American who had dared to move into a white neighborhood. McCullers’s description of Judge Clane, Malone’s aging friend, reveals with precision the peculiar combination of sentimentality and cruelty that characterizes conventional white racism of the old southern variety.
Although Carson McCullers will probably endure as a writer with a very special talent for describing the in-between world before a child becomes an adult, the noman’s-land of repressed homosexuality, and the irrational demands of love in the absence of any suitable recipient of love, the range of her fiction is quite limited. Somehow, the “child genius” never quite achieved maturity. Nevertheless, all people are immature or maimed in some secret way; in that sense, every reader must admit kinship to McCullers’s warped and melancholy characters.
Long fiction: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, 1940; Reflections in a Golden Eye, 1941; The Ballad of the Sad Café, 1943, serial (1951, book); The Member of the Wedding, 1946; Clock Without Hands, 1961.
Short fiction: The Ballad of the Sad Café: The Novels and Stories of Carson McCullers, 1951; The Ballad of the Sad Café and Collected Short Stories, 1952, 1955; The Shorter Novels and Stories of Carson McCullers, 1972.
Plays: The Member of the Wedding, pr. 1950, pb. 1951 (adaptation of her novel); The Square Root of Wonderful, pr. 1957, pb. 1958.
Nonfiction: Illumination and Night Glare: The Unfinished Autobiography of Carson McCullers, 1999 (Carlos L. Dews, editor).
Children’s literature: Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as a Pig, 1964.
Miscellaneous: The Mortgaged Heart, 1971 (short fiction, poetry, and essays; Margarita G. Smith, editor).
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.